Contagious disease and quarantine are in the news these days as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has spread from Asia to Canada and now the United States. Public health officials everywhere fear its further reach.

Eighty-five years ago, a highly infectious disease called the Spanish influenza, considered more deadly than smallpox, threatened world health. Before the epidemic had run its course through central Maine, the virus had killed many, infected hundreds and brought the area to a near standstill.

In October of 1918, as the ravages of World War I were ending, people here were forced to turn from the battlefields of Europe to an equally deadly battle at home. As it is now, autumn was fair time in Maine, and as crowds gathered to watch oxen pulls and partake in pie baking contests, they unwittingly spread a lethal form of influenza.

By the beginning of October, Lewiston-Auburn had nearly shut down as health officials tried desperately to stop the infectious virus. Churches, schools, theaters, clubs and pool rooms were closed by the boards of health. Only Bates College and wage-earning industries remained open.

The Sunday after the ban, many congregations tried to hold open air services, but a rainstorm canceled most of their plans. The next week Catholic priests protested to the board of health, which was led by S.B. Epstein. By this time, more than 500 cases of the influenza had been reported in the L-A area, yet the Rev. McDonough argued that the churches should stay open.

“I’m from Missouri, and you will have to show me why it is necessary to close the churches,” he told the board.

McDonough argued that closing these houses of worship made no more sense than closing mills and factories.

The flu swept through communities with incredible severity. “Pneumonia develops without any apparent cause, and the end comes quickly,” noted the Farmington Chronicle. Some victims became insane, and the police had to be called in. Communities were desperate for hospital space.

In Norway, the Grange Hall became a hospital with 20 cots. In Lisbon Falls, the Columbia Hall was converted to accommodate 30 patients. In Farmington, health officials bemoaned the lack of a facility. The Farmington Chronicle reported that with some sort of infirmary, “physicians say that the disease could have been handled much more successfully and probably some lives could have been saved.”

As it was, nurses and doctors were stretched thin, traveling from one family’s home to another, often fighting the same symptoms as their patients.

Without today’s sophisticated health networks, the disease took a terrible toll. In Farmington, 34-year-old Franklin J. Austin, a promising young mechanic, died of influenza, leaving behind a wife and two young children. Twenty-one-year-old Esther Knowlton, fresh from a training course at Central Maine General Hospital, fell sick shortly after taking on her first nursing assignment. Within a week she was dead. The Spanish influenza spared no community in Maine. In 1918, while many of Maine’s soldiers lost their lives on European battlefields, others lost their battle with the Spanish influenza here at home.

Additional research for this column by David Farady.

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